Smog-wreathed skyscrapers, toxic traffic jams and belching chimney stacks may be the first images that come to mind when discussing air pollution, but new research has lifted the lid on the invisible toxins tainting the air in our homes.
Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have found that cooking, cleaning and other routine household activities can generate significant levels of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, making indoor air quality levels similar to those in polluted cities.
Marina Vance, Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, headed a team that used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor air quality in a manufactured home for a month. The final results are still pending but what they did find was that even basic tasks, like boiling water over a flame, can raise pollution levels significantly.
Air pollution, which has been described as the greatest environmental health threat, kills around 7 million people every year, while 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe unsafe air, with poorest communities bearing the heaviest burden. One third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.
Household air pollution kills around 4 million people each year, mainly in developing countries in Asia and Africa where polluting fuels and technologies, including kerosene lamps and open fires, are used for cooking, heating and lighting.
As awareness has increased in developed countries, solutions ranging from air purifiers to indoor plants have been mooted to help remove dangerous particulates from our homes.
Now, Swedish furniture maker IKEA has produced a curtain that it says purifies the air using technology that could be harnessed in other ways inside the home. A mineral-based surface treatment enables the GUNRID curtain to break down air pollutants when it comes into contact with indoor or natural light. The process is similar to photosynthesis.
"One of our focus areas is to improve access to clean air, where we aim to actively reduce air pollutants and enable people to purify the air in their homes, by 2030," said Lena Pripp-Kovac, head of sustainability at Inter IKEA Group.
"The GUNRID air-purifying curtain is one step on this journey. We wanted to create a simple, convenient and affordable way to clean air that wouldn't take up much space in people's homes, so we asked ourselves: what if we could use textiles to clean the air? Besides enabling people to breathe better air at home, we hope that GUNRID will increase people's awareness of indoor air pollution, inspiring behavioural changes that contribute to a world of clean air," she added.
The GUNRID technology was developed by IKEA, alongside universities in Europe and Asia, and suppliers and innovators. They hope the development will provide opportunities for future applications on other textiles.
"As a home furnishing company, we see that we have a unique opportunity to also look at the challenges around air pollutants in a different way," said Pripp-Kovac.
It is this kind of out-of-the-box thinking and innovation that will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in Kenya in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
Writing in the UN Environment's Annual Report 2018, released ahead of the summit, acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya highlighted the work being done to battle air pollution.
"We also partnered with the World Health Organization to host the first global meeting on air pollution, which kills millions of people each year, and continued to support national strategies and policies on cleaner transport," she wrote.
UN Environment has teamed up with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the World Health Organization to drive a global Breathe Life campaign to raise awareness and support cleaner air initiatives across the world.
While many have welcomed IKEA's innovation, some critics have said the retailer must do more to reduce pollution from its manufacturing processes. The company says it has worked for years to do this by phasing out hazardous chemicals and reducing emissions.
"GUNRID is only one example of all the actions we are taking to contribute to a world of clean air," Pripp-Kovac said, noting that IKEA has phased out chemicals that are suspected of being harmful or causing allergic reactions, including formaldehydes. She also said IKEA's biggest franchisee, INGKA Group, is aiming to achieve zero emissions from home deliveries by 2025.
Last November, IKEA also launched the Better Air Now! initiative to turn rice straw, which is left over after harvesting rice and traditionally burned, into a renewable material source for its products.
IKEA has committed to becoming climate positive by aiming to use only renewable electricity and heat in its operations, and by promoting on-site renewable energy generation and new installations.
"We know that there is no single solution to solve air pollution," Pripp-Kovac said. "We also see the importance to talk about and inspire people to look for new innovative solutions."
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, from 11 to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.